When Estates Go Badly: ANNA NICOLE SMITH

When we think of the craziest criminal case ever tried, O.J. Simpson comes to mind. Well in the world of estate law it is Anna Nicole Smith. Born Vickie Lynn Marshall from Mexia, Texas, she rose to fame as one of the most notable models of the early 90’s becoming the face of Guess Jeans. Unbeknownst to the rest of us, the face of Guess was also moonlighting at night as a stripper in a Texas gentleman’s club then known as Gigi’s.

It was at Gigi’s strip club that the then 26-year-old Smith met and fell in love with J. Howard Marshall. As an oil tycoon worth more that $1.6 billion dollars, Marshall was a great catch for Smith, except for the fact he was more than 60 years her senior. At the ripe age of 89 years old, the wheelchair bound Marshall decided to marry the 26 year-old Anna Nicole Smith. Although Smith never actually lived with Marshall, they were lawfully wed for 13 months until the date of Marshall’s death on August 4, 1995. Marshall was 90 years old.

Though their marriage was unconventional and extremely controversial to say the least, the two were in fact married for thirteen months. Understandably, nearly everyone was skeptical of this marriage deemed the most notorious gold digging in United States history.

Despite each party’s intentions, for better or worse, the two had entered into a marriage and with it a legally binding agreement for the rest of their lives. And on August 4, 1995, Howard Marshall left behind a 27 year-old widow; Anna Nicole Smith, which one would assume, would be entitled to a significant share of the $1.6 billion dollar probate of his estate.

However, upon the reading of her late husband’s will Anna Nicole Smith learned she had been completely disinherited. Despite all the promises of wealth and riches Howard Marshall had made to his wife during their 13 month marriage, she was mentioned nowhere in his legacy.

The NY estate law provides for a spouse’s right of election. As a NY probate lawyer I can tell you this entitles any spouse to 1/3 of their spouse’s estate regardless of whether they were included in their will or not. The right of election is a matter of public policy and protects surviving spouses from being victimized and becoming destitute when they are most vulnerable.

Unfortunately for Anna Nicole Smith, Texas had no such law. As such, rather than commencing a petition to assert her right of election as a NY estate lawyer would do, her only option was to file a petition to contest the probate of the will. Unlike a right of election proceeding where the petitioner only needs to show they were legitimately married, a will contest is arguably one of the most difficult types of cases to successfully carry out.

In 2000, nearly 5 years after the death of the tycoon Howard Marshall, his will was still embroiled in probate litigation. By 2000 the will’s probate was being contested by both Anna Nicole Smith and his estranged son and namesake Howard Marshall III who had also been disinherited. While the will contest litigation was not going well for Smith she did catch a break from a California Bankruptcy Judge.

The Judge took it upon himself to rule in her bankruptcy proceeding that Anna Nicole Smith was in fact entitled to a portion of her late husband’s $1.6 billion dollar estate. While the judge initially awarded Smith $475 million of her late husband’s estate, that number was later reduced to $88 million. It was at this point Smith’s attorneys decided to abandon the Texas will contest as their chances of success were diminishing by the day while the costs of litigation were growing exponentially.

Later that year on October 2, 2000, a jury awarded the entire $1.6 billion estate of Howard Marshall to the sole beneficiary of his will, stepson Pierce Marshall. As such, Howard Marshall’s widow, Anna Nicole Smith and sole surviving son Howard Marshall III, were completely disinherited.

To make matters worse, the jurisdiction of a California State Bankruptcy Judge’s ability to make a determination regarding a rule of law concerning a Texas Probate was brought into question on appeal. So on March 22, 2002 a federal appellate judge overruled the Bankruptcy judge’s ruling stating that he had no authority to overrule the probate court’s determination. As such it was later appealed to the higher 9 th circuit court until it was finally appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. On June 23, 2011, 16 years after Howard Marshall’s death, the Supreme Court of the United States of America ruled that the California Bankruptcy Court judge had no jurisdiction to award Smith any portion of the pending probate proceeding in Texas.

This ultimate and anticlimactic determination came nearly 4 ½ years after Anna Nicole Smith’s death on February 8, 2007 from a drug overdose at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Fort Lauderdale Florida. Ironically, the sole beneficiary of the Howard Marshall will, Pierce Marshall died on June 20, 2006 from a sudden infection and did not live to enjoy his $1.6 billion dollar fortune.

Fortunately, in NY estate law, we have a right of election, which is a compassionate mechanism for insuring spouses, and families have some degree of financial security. In this particular case one can argue quite easily that justice was served in that the younger, manipulative Smith was not entitled to this fortune. However, this is not the norm. In NY most right of election cases involve loving surviving spouses with children and real life financial obligations.

Our estate firm is comprised of the leading right of election and will contest lawyers in NY. If you wish to speak with a NY probate lawyer for a free consultation call the Law Offices of Jason W. Stern & Associates at (718) 261-2444 for a free consultation. No other lawyers in NY have more experience with these complex probate matters.

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